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Circle of Compassion: Meditations for Caring for the Self and the World

WEEK 3: The Out-Breath: Caring for the World
by Gail Straub

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Itinerary for the Circle of Compassion:
A Four Week Journey

Week One: Learning to Follow Your Rhythm of Compassion
Week Two: The In-Breath: Caring for Self
Week Three: The Out-Breath: Caring for the World
Week Four. In Harmony with Your Rhythm of Compassion

During my years of being close to people engaged in changing the world I have seen fear turn into courage. Sorrow into joy. Funerals into celebration. Because whatever the consequences, people, standing side by side, have expressed who they really are, and that ultimately they believe in the love of the world and each other enough to be that--which is the foundation of activism. —Alice Walker

All spiritual traditions emphasize the mutually beneficial interchange between self-fulfillment and service to others--the in-breath and the out-breath. At the heart of this wisdom is the simple and profound understanding that we cannot ignore others’ suffering because they are part of us. If we isolate ourselves and disconnect from the suffering in the world, we are actually disconnecting from ourselves. This fragmentation is at the core of our spiritual emptiness in America today. These next meditations invite you to expand your circle of compassion to include all of life--old and young, vital and dying, familiar and strange, humans and creatures, forests and rivers. They guide you to choose your path of service carefully and to cultivate the four qualities of mature compassion that help you become skillful in caring for other people and the earth. As you breathe out, opening to the immensity of the world’s pain, you open to the immensity of compassion within you.

Preparing to Care for Others

I slept and dreamt that life was joy,
I woke and found that life was service,
I acted and behold service was joy.

—Rabindranath Tagore

* My rhythm of compassion is breathing out, leading me towards the world. I take quiet time and ask: What form of service is calling me? What do I long to give back to the world?

* Today I make a list of all the different talents I can offer as I serve. This helps me wisely choose my path of service.

* As I start out on my path of service I remember to engage in something I enjoy, and to start small being careful not to overcommit myself.

* Sometimes finding my path of giving is a creative process of trial and error. I embrace this very process as a rich part of my learning. This month I take time to research the path that’s right for me: mentoring troubled teens; serving the dying; working with prisoners; cleaning up a river; helping in an animal shelter; or spending time with the elderly.

* Today I focus on Dr. Martin Luther King’s beautiful words “ Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.”

* After the honeymoon phase of falling in love with my service, I might notice some of these more complicated feelings arising within me: my need for approval or status; my fear, boredom, or perfectionism; a martyr complex that says I can never do enough, or the shame and guilt that motivate my service. I take time to identify my shadow.

* I pause, I breathe in, I make space to hold my contradictions. I acknowledge that right next to my genuine desire to serve sits my shadow side.

* I bring my shadow out into the bright light of my awareness. I talk and laugh about it with others--they all have shadows too. If needed I get help from a therapist or support group. All of this transforms my shadow.

* As I find my true path of service and stay aware of the shadow side of my motivation, more and more my giving arises from a spontaneous generosity and the natural joy of serving.


Cultivating the Four Qualities of Mature Compassion
Compassion in action is paradoxical and mysterious. It is absolute yet continually changing. It accepts that everything is happening exactly as it should, and it works with a full- hearted commitment to change. It is joyful in the midst of suffering, and hopeful in the face of overwhelming odds. It is simple in a world of complexity and confusion. It is done for others, but it nurtures the self. It intends to eliminate suffering, knowing that suffering is limitless. —Ram Dass

* Sometimes as I care for my sick child or my frail aging parent; a person with AIDS or a battered woman; a poisoned river or an abused creature--the suffering overwhelms me and questions flood my heart. Does my caring matter; can I ever do enough; how can I get away from all this suffering; how do I act in these painful situations? These brave and difficult questions open the door to a fuller more mature compassion.

* Quieting my mind through my chosen spiritual practice is the first step towards a more mature compassion. Like a still lake, my quiet mind allows me to see beyond the surface of suffering. Deep in the stillness I see that I cannot fix, or change, or control the suffering around me. Deep in the stillness I can hold both my intention to alleviate suffering, and my acceptance of it just as it is.

* Today when I encounter the pain of my child, partner, colleague, or friend-- I pause, I breathe in, I quiet my mind. Deep in the stillness I see clearly there is no need to change or fix their pain. I am a still lake for them.

* As my mind becomes quiet, I begin to hear the gentle voice of my heart. My heart reminds me of its vast reservoirs of loving kindness and courage that I can draw from as I encounter the suffering of the world. The gentle voice of my heart whispers all suffering is the same--yours, mine, society's, and the earth's--there is no use trying to avoid the ocean you are part of.

*Today as I practice opening my heart I remember Jack Kornfield’s words “To open deeply, as genuine spiritual life requires, we need tremendous courage and strength, a kind of warrior spirit. But the place of this warrior strength is in the heart.”

* My quiet mind and open heart prepare the ground for my presence to emerge. Presence assures me there’s no need to worry about performing or “doing the right thing” as I care for others. Just be myself. Presence allows my caring to always be a mutual exchange where I heal, and, I am healed.

* Today I practice presence as I care for those around me. I am myself as I listen, laugh, cry, and share joys and sorrows. The boundaries between giver receiver disappear.

* From presence emerges radical simplicity. In the midst of the immense complexity of the world’s suffering, my service is radically simple. I do whatever small thing is needed in a given moment with a loving heart. This radical simplicity helps me when I feel overwhelmed by suffering.

* The next time some form of suffering overwhelms me I remember to practice radical simplicity. I remember Mother Teresa’s words “One cannot do great things, one can only do small things with great love.”

* As I cultivate a quiet mind, an open heart, presence, and radical simplicity my compassion deepens and matures. My mature compassion finds unity in seeming contradictions--joy in the midst of suffering, peaceful acceptance combined with passionate engagement, and hope in the face of complex challenges.

Practicing Mature Compassion for the Human Family
If while we practice, we are not aware that the world is suffering, that children are dying of hunger, that social injustice is going on a little bit everywhere, we are not practicing mindfulness. We are just trying to escape. —Thich Nhat Hanh

* As my compassion matures I see the unclouded truth--suffering is everywhere--- in myself, my family, my community, my society and the earth itself. To deepen in compassion I learn to accept and stay open to the universality of suffering.

* To help me stay open I turn to my chosen spiritual practice--prayer, meditation, yoga, time in nature, or a long talk with a trusted friend or counselor---to remind me that I can’t control or fix suffering, but I can be present to it. To remind me that in our suffering we’re all the same.

* Today I focus on this lovely teaching from Sharon Salzberg “ The goal of our spiritual practice is to be able to understand, to be able to look without illusion at what is natural in this life, at what is actually happening for others and for ourselves. This willingness to see what is true is the first step in developing compassion.”

* I understand that as I genuinely accept the universal presence of suffering, I am also accepting responsibility for engaged action. As I embrace this paradox of acceptance and responsibility, I strengthen my capacity for caring.

* Today as I encounter the suffering of someone I help--my child or parent, client or colleague, friend or stranger--I quiet my mind and open my heart. I breathe in their suffering with the wish that they be free of pain; and I breathe out sending them love and healing. And again, I breathe in their suffering with the wish that they be free of pain; and I breathe out sending them love and healing. I use this simple and powerful practice whenever I need it.

* In some situations of profound suffering--a friend or family member is dying, serving someone in prison, a young person with AIDS, or a woman who has been raped--the pain is so great it breaks my heart. In these situations I practice staying open to the suffering and letting the pain break my heart.

* Today I focus on the phrase “my heart is breaking, my heart is awakening.” As I care for others my heart shatters, and so does the hard shell of my ego. My broken heart awakens me and liberates me.

* I know that heartbreak is an inevitable part of compassion. It opens me and deeply connects me to those I serve. As I tend to a child with cancer, a parent with Alzheimer’s, a victim of unspeakable child abuse, or an innocent victim of random gun violence--I surround myself with the phrase “my heart is breaking, my heart is awakening.” This reminds me that each time my heart breaks it also grows strong and luminous.

* Right now, I stop, I breathe in. I imagine my heart of compassion in full blossom. No defending, no fixing, avoiding, or intellectualizing the suffering of the world. My heart is fully open. I am fully alive.

* I truly understand that to abandon others in their suffering is to abandon myself. To open to the immensity of other’s pain is to open to the immense compassion within me.

Practicing Mature Compassion for the Earth
Asking what good are eagles and owls, or ebony spleenworts, or black-footed ferrets, or snail darters, or any other of our fellow travelers, is like asking what good are our brothers and sisters, or children, or friends. Such questions arise only in the absence of love. —Scott Russell Sanders

* My compassion for the earth begins when I recognize that my destiny is profoundly linked with the fate of the earth. The way I live today affects the future of all living things. Indeed the health of my soul and the health of the planet is a seamless continuum.

* Today I focus on the significance of James Hillman’s words, “Psychology, so dedicated to awakening human consciousness, needs to wake up to one of the most ancient human truths: we cannot be studied or cured apart from the planet.”

* Like all compassion, ecological compassion begins at home as I plant a garden and compost; conserve water in my kitchen and bathroom; recycle, reuse, and repair; and every time I shop with green values. Each of these is an act of caring for the earth. I commit to at least one conscious act of ecological compassion every day.

* Today I recognize my stewardship as a spiritual practice. Each earth-friendly act--recycling, car pooling, eco-wise shopping, conserving--is also an act of ecological mindfulness. Sustainable living offers me ongoing practice in mindfulness.

* The degree of mindfulness that I bring to my most ordinary acts of sustainable living determines the sacredness in my daily life. My recycling bins become daily rounds of earth awareness; the water and energy I save are prayers of gratitude; the rides I share are a collective offering to clean fresh air. My mindfulness transforms the mundane into the sacred.

* Just as I did with the human family, I stay open to the suffering of the earth family. My warrior heart feels, connects, and breaks as I encounter strangled rivers, raped forests, battered wetlands, or abused creatures. I breathe in their suffering with the wish that they be free of pain; and I breathe out sending them love and healing. And again, I breathe in their suffering with the wish that they be free of pain; and I breathe out sending them love and healing. I use this simple and powerful practice whenever I need it.

* My awakened heart makes visible the suffering of the earth--poisoned air and water, the abuse of over-development, the multitude of endangered species. The more I open my heart to feel the pain, the more connected, courageous, and alive I feel. I understand the intimate connection between passion and compassion.

* I know that there are no simple formulas for ecological compassion. I know that I cannot fix or control the vast suffering of the earth. But I can open wide the door of my heart, and respond to what’s needed with loving kindness and full engagement.

* I understand that true stewardship is a partnership between reverence and responsibility.

* Today Mary Oliver’s words ring at the very core of my being. “Each form sets a tone, enables a destiny, strikes a note in the universe unlike any other. How can we ever stop looking? How can we ever turn away?”

* Caring for the earth puts me in harmony with a vast, eternal rhythm of compassion which cares not just for us, not just for now, but for the earth and all it’s future inhabitants. I open my circle of compassion and welcome the creatures, mountains, water, air, and forests. I know we are all wild and mysterious creatures with invisible threads connecting us in both our joy and our suffering.

Gail Straub is the co-author of the best selling Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life As You Want It, and the author of the critically acclaimed The Rhythm of Compassion: Caring For Self, Connecting With Society, as well as Circle of Compassion a book of meditations. Considered a leading authority on empowerment, she co-directs the Empowerment Institute a school for transformative leadership. The Institute’s certified graduates from cultures as diverse as Afghanistan, Africa, Russia, and Asia are implementing the empowerment model in education, business, health, hip-hop, and social change. Over the past thirty years she has trained thousands of people worldwide in empowerment, engaged spirituality, and the wisdom of the feminine. Her latest book is the award winning feminist memoir, Returning to My Mother’s House. Gail was raised Catholic and today considers herself a Christian Buddhist as her spiritual practices include both meditation as well as a passionate prayer life.

For Further Support
For more extended meditations and for the fullest understanding of the ideas in this journey we recommend Gail Straub’s book The Rhythm of Compassion: Caring for Self, Connecting with Society available through amazon.com or at www.empowermenttraining.com.

For further information on Gail Straub’s trainings and books contact:
Empowerment Training Programs
1649 Rt.28A
West Hurley, New York, 12491
E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site: www.empowermenttraining.com




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